Saturday, February 17

Pay for a dishonest war? Here's what Lincoln said

On Jan. 12, 1848, U.S. Rep. Abraham Lincoln, a Whig from Illinois, gave a speech on the House floor in which he denounced President Polk for lying to justify an unprovoked war against Mexico. Not only that. Lincoln complained that Polk had characterized "every silent vote given for supplies, into an endorsement of the justice and wisdom of his conduct."

Lincoln continued:

…in his late message in which [Polk] tells us that Congress, with great unanimity, only two in the Senate and fourteen in the House dissenting, had declared that, "by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States" when the same journals that informed him of this, also informed him that when that declaration stood disconnected from the question of supplies, sixty-seven in the House, and not fourteen merely, voted against it…
Lincoln accused Polk of an "open attempt to prove, by telling the truth, what he could not prove by telling the whole truth." He added that "all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him."

Lincoln brought up three issues, all of which are found in the debate over the occupation of Iraq: funding of the occupation, deception about the reason for war, and predictions about the ease and brevity of the fighting. On all three issues, today's Democrats echo Lincoln's arguments.

First, Lincoln thought Congress had a right and a responsibility to end the war in Mexico by tightening the purse strings.

Second, the bulk of Lincoln's speech concerned Polk's assertion that the war was justified because American blood had been spilled on American territory. Lincoln believed that Polk's assertion was a lie, just as today, most Americans believe Bush's warnings about weapons of mass destruction were lies.

Third, Lincoln bitterly recalled that Polk had "driven into disfavor" a general who had predicted that the war wouldn't be a cakewalk, and that it would take at least three or four months. The war was 20 months old when Lincoln made his speech.

Lincoln said that Polk had tried to escape scrutiny
by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory -- that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood, that serpent's eye that charms to destroy -- he plunged into it, and has swept, on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself where he knows not where. How like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream is the whole war part of his late message!
Then Lincoln diagnosed the current problem in a passage that could be spoken on the floor of today's House with few alterations:
As to the mode of terminating the war, and securing peace, the President is equally wandering and indefinite. First, it is to be done by a more vigorous prosecution of the war in the vital parts of the enemy's country; and, after apparently talking himself tired on this point, the President drops down into a half despairing tone, and tells us that "with a people distracted and divided by contending factions, and a government subject to constant changes, by successive revolutions, the continued success of our arms may fail to secure a satisfactory peace." Then he suggests the propriety of wheedling the Mexican people to desert the counsels of their own leaders, and trusting in our protection to set up a government from which we can secure a satisfactory peace; telling us that "this may become the only mode of obtaining such a peace." But soon he falls into doubt of this too; and then drops back on to the already half abandoned ground of "more vigorous prosecution." All this shows that the President is, in no wise, satisfied with his own positions. … His mind, tasked beyond its power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease.

Again, it is a singular omission in this message that it nowhere intimates when the President expects the the war to terminate. … As I have before said, he knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show there is not something about his conscience more painful than all his mental perplexity!
I, unlike Frank Gaffney, have not fabricated quotes from Lincoln. The text of the speech can be found on the site of the Library of Congress. If this link doesn't work, go here and search the phrase "Lincoln Mexican War."

More importantly, the speech shows that today's Democrats -- and 17 lonely House Republicans -- are the patriotic heirs of Abraham Lincoln.